Carmen Savelli’s journey to the World Health Organization

Q & A

Describe your journey graduating from Waterloo to your role as a Technical Officer with the World Health Organization.

I was working at the Public Health Agency of Canada while concurrently undertaking my MPH at UW. Completing a 12-16 week practicum was a requirement of the MPH program so I took a professional-development leave of absence from PHAC and headed for the WHO in Geneva, Switzerland where I arranged to spend three months in the Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses. Once I arrived, I loved it and was asked to consider coming back for a longer period if an opportunity arose. I stayed for my planned 3 months then returned to Canada and gave notice to PHAC that I would be leaving for a staff position with WHO. Looking back it wasn’t really a tough decision at all – I was excited for the opportunity. My time at PHAC was great – I worked with some really amazing and inspiring people, but after 3 years there, and with an MPH under my belt, I was ready to move on to a new challenge. I competed for a post as a Project Officer at WHO and subsequently as a Technical Officer a few years later, which is the position that I’m in now.

Did your time at Waterloo in Masters of Public Health impact you, or help you land where you are today?

Yes absolutely – in addition to providing me with the skills (discussed in the next question) and stronger foundation of public health knowledge that I utilize in my daily work, it also prepared me for my latest academic endeavor – my PhD in Public Health which I am working on part-time as I continue with my full-time work at WHO. The MPH at UW gave me confidence to use the right tools as a public health practitioner to approach problem solving from different perspectives.

Describe how you use the skills you learned in Masters of Public Health in your day-to-day?

I think it’s hard to pin-point this exactly- the whole experience of refining my ability to think critically and organize my thoughts in a structured way, and apply frameworks and processes to my projects are all skills that were enhanced during my MPH studies. There are certainly elements from many of the courses I took (like global health, risk assessment, environmental health, epidemiology, health communication) which I use in my everyday work.

Describe the most rewarding aspect of your career.

The most rewarding aspect of my career is the opportunity to work directly with other public health people in countries around the globe. The opportunities I’ve had to deliver training courses and workshops in Cameroon, the Philippines, Chile, Nepal, Bhutan and several other countries have probably been especially rewarding – it always give me a boost of enthusiasm to meet these dedicated people working on the front lines of public health in their respective country. It definitely serves as a good reminder that the work I’m doing is important and appreciated, despite the challenges!

What do you think is the most challenging aspect of your career?

The WHO is a really big organization with a lot of moving parts. It’s necessary to collaborate with many other international organizations and various partners globally, and this is difficult logistically, and also strategically when you have to try and move forward in an environment where different agencies have competing priorities and have different ideas of what the best outcome looks like. At the same time, the convening power of WHO to engage with so many stakeholders is also one of its strengths and so, while difficult, it’s also really powerful to invoke real change and truly make a difference on the health of many! I think that facing these challenges has allowed me to improve my skills with respect to consensus building, negotiating and strategic planning – all important for global health governance.

What advice would you have for students or alumni who want to pursue a career with organizations like the World Health Organization?

The best advice is to complete an internship or volunteer placement with the WHO. Coming to Geneva (WHO HQ) or one of the other regional or country-level offices and working alongside other professionals for a period of 3-6 months really gives students a unique opportunity to learn about global health governance and the complexity of program delivery as it relates to the WHO.

Did you always want to get into this type of field? Was there anything or anyone that influenced you?

It was more than 10 years ago, while I was completing my Bachelor of Science degree, when I first became interested in public health. Although I was majoring in bio-medical science, an elective epidemiology course piqued my interest in public health and steered me in this direction. As a result, I decided to complete my fourth-year undergraduate research project at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). I was subsequently hired as a research assistant at PHAC and spent the next year learning from some brilliant and inspiring colleagues. Following this experience it was clear to me that I would pursue a career in public health. In 2007 I was recruited as a junior epidemiologist at PHAC within the Centre for Foodborne, Environmental and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases and I remained there for the next 3 years. Working at this national agency provided me with a unique opportunity to examine cross-cutting issues with broad reaching implications throughout the entire country.

In addition, when I graduated from my undergraduate degree I spent 5 weeks travelling in India which was my first time outside of North America. It was a fascinating experience and very sobering indeed to see the social inequalities that existed there and the impacts they have on health and wellbeing. I returned from that trip to work on a short term contract at the Centre for Global Health Research in Toronto where I continued to examine health issues in India. This collective experience was another that led me to pursue a career in global public health.

What has been your favourite work project thus far in your career?

I really enjoy teaching and I have enjoyed the various opportunities I’ve had to do that. I enjoy projects the most when I get to meet my counterparts working in-countries. My favourite project was probably delivering a week-long epidemiology training module in Cameroon to participants from several different countries in the region. It was my first time in such a scenario and the excitement and enthusiasm from the participants was really inspiring. I also delivered a speech at the Milan Expo last year when the theme was “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”, and that was a career highlight. It was probably the largest audience I’ve presented in front of and I was certainly in good company with respect to fellow presenters. I was privileged to have been invited.


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